Italy’s finance minister canceled his first talks with his French counterpart and the interior minister demanded an apology from President Emmanuel Macron as a dispute over a migrant rescue ship escalated into a rare diplomatic incident.
Finance chief Giovanni Tria pulled out of a meeting with Bruno Le Maire, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in Paris, according to an Italian Treasury official. That came after France reprimanded Italy over its refusal to grant access to the Aquarius, carrying some 600 people rescued in the Mediterranean.
Tria and Le Maire spoke on the phone after the cancellation, and agreed that Tria will go to Paris “in the coming days,” a French finance ministry official said.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also deputy premier and leader of the anti-migrant League, urged Macron to apologize earlier on Wednesday. Salvini said in a speech to the Senate in Rome that Italians “don’t need lessons from anyone on generosity and solidarity.”
Salvini’s battle to curb arrivals from across the Mediterranean has rocked relations between the new populist coalition and France just over a week after the administration, with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, was sworn in. The spat could threaten broader efforts led by France and Germany to reform euro area governance.
Macron said on Tuesday that Italy was “cynical and irresponsible” over the Aquarius, which was left stranded after Italy and Malta refused to grant it permission to dock. Macron is due to meet Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte in Paris on Friday.
“Our actions don’t deserve to be described in such terms by figures in the French government who I hope will apologize,” Salvini, 45, told senators. He said migration had become “an invasion managed by criminals,” adding that his government was “behaving coherently, with dignity and humanely.”
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned senior French diplomat Claire Raulin, telling her that French public comments “are jeopardizing relations between Italy and France,” according to a statement from his ministry. The Aquarius is sailing to Spain after the country agreed to welcome the ship.
Appeal to Macron
Salvini urged Macron to welcome “tomorrow morning” more than 9,000 migrants he said France was due to take in over three years. “France tells us we are cynical, but from Jan. 1 to May 31 it has pushed back across the borders 10,249 people, including women and handicapped children.”
Since 2016 France has reimposed border controls at its border with Italy, seeking to prevent migrants crossing into France.
Salvini targeted not just Macron. Salvini thanked Spain and “the good heart of Prime Minister Sanchez.” But he added that he hoped Pedro Sanchez would continue to be generous also in coming weeks, as Italy has welcomed 170,000 migrants and Spain 16,000.
Financier George Soros was also reprimanded by Salvini. “It’s time that states acted as states, it’s unacceptable that private associations paid for by who-knows-who dictate how and when immigration is handled,” Salvini said. “And then, you’d need to see where certain funding comes from, because when I read that behind some associations there is the Open Society of Soros I start to doubt how spontaneous this generosity is.”
Earlier on Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told CNews television that the European Union today is “not equal to the challenge” of handling migration “collectively, efficiently and humanely.” He called for stronger external controls, cooperation with Africa, sending home migrants who were not entitled to remain, and countering traffickers.
“The law is when a boat is in trouble it’s the country and the port that’s closest that provides the rescue,” Le Drian said. “It’s because of the geographic situation of Italy that it’s the one that receives the most boats, but we have to share this burden.”
In an interview with newspaper Corriere della Sera published on Sunday, Finance Minister Tria stressed that the new government shares France’s approach to the changes needed for the European Union. “We agree with what France proposes,” he said. “We want to move forward on many aspects of euro area governance and the banking union.”
(Updates with Tria-Le Maire call in third paragraph.)